‘Unacceptable’: Shock China act in parliament

An Australian government official (left) obstructed a Chinese media official (right) from moving near journalist Cheng Lei, who remained seated. Picture: Supplied.

Chinese officials have tried to block Australian journalist Cheng Lei from appearing on camera during a press conference with Premier Li Qiang more than eight months after she was freed from a Chinese prison.

Video footage shows embassy officials attempting to move in front of Ms Cheng to block her from the view of cameras.

Australian officials responded by physically wedging themselves to shield the Sky News presenter while Premier Li Qiang and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese spoke to reporters.

The confrontation occurred while the Prime Minister gave his post-meeting remarks. Picture: Supplied.

Ms Cheng was incarcerated by Chinese authorities in 2020 after being accused of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas”, allegations that were unfounded.

She returned home to Melbourne last year after a three-year ordeal in prison.

Appearing on Sky News following the scuffle, Ms Cheng said it was typical of Chinese officials to attempt to convey a “friendly facade” during events of significant importance.

“Well, it’s typical right, with these events,” she told colleagues.

“Especially if they’re attaching importance to the friendly facade, that they’re carefully staging that voices of discord or the presence of someone who’s a bit controversial, not harm that.

“They went to great lengths to block me from the cameras.”

Journalist Cheng Lei was blocked by Chinese officials at a signing event attended by Prime Minister and the Chinese Premier. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Ms Lei added said she felt protected by Australian government officials who stood by her during the incident.

“Our officials behaved courteously, firmly, as they should have,” she said.

Speaking at a press conference hours later, Mr Albanese ducked questions on the behaviour of the Chinese entourage towards Ms Cheng.

“Well, I didn’t see it,” he told a press conference after the official functions were over.

“But I saw Cheng Lei and we smiled at each other during the event.

“I’m not aware of the issues and it is important that people be allowed to participate fully and that is what should happen in this building or anywhere else in Australia.”

Australia-China military comms

Mr Albanese has revealed he discussed enhancing military-to-military communication with Chinese Premier Li Qiang after a series of incidents where Australian navy personnel were confronted by Chinese military personnel.

In November, Australian navy divers were injured after sonar pulses were deployed by a Chinese warship. Six months later, personnel on-board an Australian navy helicopter were put in harm’s way when a Chinese jet detonated flares nearby; however, no one was injured in that incident.

“One of the very practical measures that we spoke about was improving military-to-military communication,” Mr Albanese told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

“The one-on-one meeting had myself and (Defence Minister) Richard (Marles) and Penny Wong there as the foreign minister with equal numbers from Premier Li’s side as well.

“But it is a constructive dialogue from within, in a mature way of trying to work through where there are differences.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese revealed he discussed military-to-military communications with the Chinese premier. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Human rights abuses, Yang Hengjun case

In remarks following the state banquet, Mr Albanese confirmed he had raised a “full range of Australia’s interests” during his meeting with Mr Li.

“Our approach has often been patient, calibrated and deliberate. I said repeatedly we’ll co-operate where we can, disagree where we must, but engage in our national interest,” Mr Albanese said.

“Dialogue is how we manage differences. It’s how we also share opportunity.”

Mr Albanese said he had additionally raised the case of Australian writer Yang Hengjun, who was arrested in China in 2019 on espionage charges and handed a suspended death sentence by a Beijing court in February.

“We, of course, in Australia, oppose capital punishment and I reiterated our position there,” Mr Albanese said.

Australia-China ink new bilateral deals

Mr Albanese and Mr Li have witnessed Australian cabinet ministers and China’s ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian sign four separate memorandums designed to deepen bilateral ties between Australia and China.

The agreements covered a range of areas including the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, climate change, alongside education and research.

The two countries also committed to strengthen collaboration between their domestic arts and cultural sectors.

A series of new bilateral agreements were signed to further deepen Australia-China relations. Picture: NewsWire / Martin Ollman

In remarks delivered after the agreements were inked, Mr Albanese said the occasion was significant granted Mr Li was the first Chinese premier to visit Australia in seven years.

“We had a constructive discussion today at the annual leaders’ meeting,” Mr Albanese said.

“That’s how we make progress on our shared interests and protect regional stability. Without dialogue, we can’t address any of the differences that arise between us.”

While noting that Australia and China had their differences, Mr Albanese maintained continued engagement was critical.

“I’ve made it clear as nations with different histories, political systems and values, we will co-operate with China where we can, disagree where we must and engage in the national interest,” he said.

“Premier Li, our discussions today have only strengthened my view that it is crucial for us to engage with each other.”

Chinese Premier Li Qiang and Mr Albanese delivered joint remarks following a meeting between the pair. Picture: NewsWire / Martin Ollman

In response, Mr Li said the relationship between Australia and China was “characterised by mutual benefit and results”.

“China is driving for its modernisation in all respects through high-quality development. A growing and more open China will bring more opportunities for bringing co-operation to Australia and the rest of the world,” Premier Li said.

“China will work with Australia in the spirit of mutual respect, seeking common ground, power, sharing differences and mutual benefits to build a more mature, stable and fruitful comprehensive strategic partnership.”

PM’s warm welcome for China’s Premier

Earlier, Mr Li received a ceremonial welcome on the forecourt of Parliament House, with a grinning Mr Albanese shaking his hand on arrival and introducing him to dignitaries.

After a gun salute, Premier Li signed the visitor’s book in the Marble Foyer inside Parliament House.

Mr Li will also hold discussions with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton later in the day.

Premier Li Qiang inspects the guard of honour at Parliament House in Canberra. Picture: NewsWire / Martin Ollman
The pair will hold talks before a planned press conference and official lunch. Picture: NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Heated protests for Li’s arrival

Ahead of meetings, a large group of protesters representing the Tibetan and Uyghur communities gathered outside the front lawn of parliament while Falun Gong followers lined Canberra’s main roads.

A large crowd bearing Chinese and Australian flags outside the building jostled with pro-Tibetan activists.

Tensions simmered ahead of Premier Li’s arrival. Picture: Martin Ollman/NewsWire
Tensions simmered ahead of Premier Li’s arrival. Picture: Martin Ollman/NewsWire
There were clashes between the groups. Picture: Martin Ollman/NewsWire
There were clashes between the groups. Picture: Martin Ollman/NewsWire

Earlier, opposition home affairs spokesman James Paterson urged Mr Albanese to press for the release of imprisoned Chinese-Australian writer and human rights advocate Yang Hengjun, who was handed a suspended death sentence by a Chinese court in February.

“We must do absolutely everything we can because his family are rightly very concerned about his health and wellbeing … he has been unjustly detained for too long,” Senator Paterson told Sky.

It’s expected that Mr Albanese will raise a host of serious matters during his conversation with the Premier, including Mr Hengjun’s medical condition in jail and lingering trade sanctions on Australian exports.

Federal police were out in force. Picture: Supplied
Federal police were out in force. Picture: Supplied
Supporters of China also gathered outside Parliament House in Canberra for Premier Li’s visit. Picture: NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Later on Monday evening, Premier Li will fly to Perth ahead of a business roundtable on Tuesday followed by a visit to a Chinese-owned lithium plant.

In a statement issued after arriving in Australia, Mr Li said China-Australia relations were “back on track” after a series of “twists and turns, generating tangible benefits to the people of both countries”.

“History has proven that seeking common ground while shelving differences and mutually beneficial co-operation are the valuable experience in growing China-Australia relations and must be upheld and carried forward,” he said